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Surprising fun, colorful visuals in ‘Wonka’

Jack Travis

Making a prequel to 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory invites a lot of room for cinematic blunders. Tim Burton already attempted an unfortunate reboot in 2005 with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory starring Johnny Depp.

But now Director Paul King has a vision with Timothée Chalamet playing a young Willy Wonka just getting started. And it’s. . . surprisingly fun.

The story begins with Wonka arriving in a city famed for its chocolate. He’s spent years abroad collecting all sorts of magical ingredients for his candy and is eager to get started. This is a young and optimistic Wonka with just a little money to his name that’s soon spent on charity and fines in the city.

With no cash, Wonka soon finds himself in a boarding house and signing a contract for a room, only to become swindled by legal language he doesn’t understand. The aspirational chocolatier is trapped with a group of other boarders who were cheated and now spend their days washing and drying clothes for the inn’s owner to pay off an impossible sum of money.

Of course, this isn’t enough to keep the young man down. He soon befriends a girl named Noodle (Calah Lane), and she becomes his assistant, helping him to sneak out of the laundry room and hunt down more ingredients for his chocolate. Wonka introduces her to candy and hope that they can escape their harsh circumstances.

But as Wonka tries to make a name for himself, three rich and corrupt chocolatiers in the city band together to stop him. They bribe police to chase Wonka all over town before resorting to even more dangerous methods of stopping the aspiring entrepreneur.

With Noodle’s hopes and dreams on the line as well as his own, Wonka will have to use all of his skill, wit, and magic to stop the CEOs, weasel out of his boarding house contract, and catch a little orange man (Hugh Grant) who breaks in at night to steal Wonka’s chocolate.

The 2005 reboot left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths for this franchise, so it’s understandable for folks to be a bit suspicious of this prequel. Fortunately, “Wonka” manages to deliver in just about every way imaginable.

This movie offers a colorful and vivid world where everything from flying away with a handful of balloons to eating magical candy that causes you to grow tons of hair is possible. It’s a fun place to be for a couple hours.

Wonka doesn’t offer up a legendary story or try to stray too far from the candy wrapper established by Gene Wilder. The villains are all archetypes (the evil corporate bigwigs), the characters' motivations aren’t anything new, and everyone knows how it’s all going to end by merit of this being a prequel.

But Chalamet and Grant are so charismatic that none of that becomes a hindrance. In fact, Chalamet nails the appearance, tone, singing, and dancing of his predecessor while adding a more optimistic and naive approach that helps reintroduce the character to a new audience. He still has a few stoic expressions that lend him so well to other roles like that of Paul Atreides, but thanks to his effortless charm, Chalamet still manages to play the chocolatier well.

As for Grant, the film knows exactly how much (or how little) of him the audience needs to see to appreciate his dry take and British-isms. Wonka gives him just three or four scenes, and it’s the perfect measurement for maximum effect as we meet the Oompa Loompa.

Every actor contributes something great to this story and makes it just heartfelt enough while avoiding the realm of “too cheesy.”

Wonka ends up being a musical like its predecessor, and while the songs aren’t too remarkable, they serve the film well enough. Just think of them as B-Sides to Disney albums.

Given how poorly the last film in this franchise was received, it’s remarkable that Wonka manages to clear the bar and find something pleasant to add to this story. This is a movie the entire family can enjoy together that rightly belongs smack dab in the middle of the holidays.

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Courtney Lanning is a film critic who appears weekly on <i>Ozarks At Large</i> to discuss the latest in movies.
Kyle Kellams is KUAF's news director and host of Ozarks at Large.
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